For a generation of British children, growing up in the UK meant there was a good chance that you cut your literary teeth on the writing of Enid Blyton. Amongst her best loved work was an adventure series called “The Secret Seven” and I think it was there that I first learned what it was to lose myself in a story. At the centre of the action was an old garden shed where seven children would perch on upturned flower pots, drink lemonade, solve mysteries, and come up with plans to unmask the latest gang of dastardly villains. The plot lines were not particularly complex but it mattered little, such was the appeal of that band of friends. Long before I found the words to name it, I was pulled in by the sense of belonging and common purpose that bound the children together. So much so that I decided to form my own “Secret Seven.”
The perfect headquarters was already in place. A cellar as thick with dust and cobweb as it was with possibility, accessed by a little wooden door at the side of my grandparents’ house and masked by a wall of tall thick trees.
Somehow I managed to convince six of my classmates to sign up. At the pre-arranged time they stole into my back garden, sneakers tracing a silent path through the long shadows. One by one they knocked on the little door, muttered the secret password and slipped quietly into the underground room.
Thirty years later I still cringe at the memory of that first meeting. As we sat there, precariously balanced on flimsy packing crates and sagging boxes, eager anticipation began to turn to awkward silence. It took about thirty seconds for my excitement to be replaced by the realization that I had no idea what to do next. And I had forgotten the lemonade.
It turned out that in my town, the criminal gangs, if they existed at all, didn’t make their plans known to groups of small children intent on bringing them down. The best we came up with was an overly zealous attempt to solve an argument between two older boys fighting in our street. Our help was not well received. By the second meeting seven had become four. When the time for a third meeting came around only one child knocked the door, her whispered password lost in the empty darkness. I had long since abandoned the disappointing reality and retreated back into my books.
As this memory resurfaced recently, it occurred to me how often similar scenes have played out in my life. I may not have attempted to resurrect my ill-fated “Secret Seven” but, with surprising regularity, I have pursued my own romantic visions of community, only to return deflated when the reality fails to measure up to my pre-conceived ideals.
Community is part of who we are. In its purest form it is a beautiful reflection of the intimate relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in whose image we are made. We have good reason to hope and long for it. The problem is that the practice of community can be a lot less romantic than the theory. The perfect ideal sits in tension with the fact of our brokenness so that life in relationship rarely works out the way we have pictured it. Sometimes it seems that the closer we get to one another, the more our sharp edges scrape and tear, drawing blood from new wounds and opening the scars on old ones. This jarring clash between what is real and what is longed for raises the question; is community still worth pursuing?
Our response to this question is critical.
We can, as I did, retreat. Drifting from one place to another. Expounding theory from a safe distance as others take arms against the darkness. Searching on for the holy grail of perfect community.
Or, we can accept the challenge of engaging with imperfection, throwing our hat in the ring as we try to figure out what grace looks like when it is let loose on the reality of the here and now.
The problem with the first response is that, according to Jesus, the litmus test of our relationship with God is not creative genius, artistic beauty, or even theological expertise. It is love. And love, by its very nature, can’t operate at a distance.
Jesus laid down the gauntlet in John 13 verse 35 with these words: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” If we love one another the people around us can conclude that we are disciples of Jesus. If we don’t . . . well, I’ll let you finish that sentence. The inescapable fact is that when I choose to retreat, rejecting the challenge of loving my brothers and sisters the way that Jesus loves me, I make a mockery of my claim to love Him.
There is another reason why the pursuit of community matters. In the hours before Jesus faced the cross, knowing all that lay ahead, these were the words that weighed on his anguished heart: “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you sent me.” (John 17:20-21)
According to Jesus, our unity, our “oneness,” is the very thing that will convince the world around us that the story we are telling is true. If we do not love as Jesus loved, then all of our words, all of our God-given creativity, and all of our efforts are lost on a world that sees a charade and simply doesn’t believe us. This truth and the implications of it have me in their grip and won’t let go.
Whatever it means practically on any given day, the pursuit of community will cost us. It will mean investing our gifts in the building up of the church. It will mean staying put when it would be so much easier to walk away. It will mean difficult conversations that take place on bent knees over open Bibles. It will mean forgiving and letting it go. Sometimes it will mean an incarnation of grace that acknowledges the wounds and then steps up to bandage the very hands that inflicted them.
The truth is this: the reality of unity is hard. But it still matters. It matters because the story we are telling is wonderfully true and, if we want to tell it, there is no plan B.
The great thing is that when we invest in community, pursuing love on Jesus’ terms, it not only authenticates our story, it also opens the door to relationships that have passed through the storm and come out stronger and deeper for it.
In her recent post “Beautiful Community of Artists,” Ellie Holcomb wrote about an experience of community that was as beautiful as anything I have read in stories. She said; “These people love well. They seek each other out. They listen. They pray. They laugh—a lot. They play spike ball and catch phrase. They say, ‘I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?’ They gather each night to eat a meal together. They bear with each other. They craft songs that carry the ache and joy and hope and wandering our souls experience, and they welcomed me as one of their own.”
I am learning that the way to find a community worth belonging to is not to spend your life searching for it, but rather to invest in what is there in front of you. It’s true that the reality of relationship often falls short of the ideal. But sometimes it is better. Sometimes the friendships formed in the crucible of forgiveness and grace, of shared experience and the telling of our common story, turn out to be richer and more meaningful than the thing we imagined in the first place.
Heidi Johnston is the author of Life in the Big Story and Choosing Love in a Broken World. She studied law at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and now lives back home in Northern Ireland with her husband and two daughters. Heidi is passionate about getting people to engage with the Bible for themselves and has a fascination with the book of Deuteronomy.